The Fear of Boredom
“We pointed to the moon…we went up there and you know what we got? Bored.”i
You have to hand it to the American cocktail of workaholism and consumption: even when you make fun of it, it’s attractive. When I watched this Cadillac commercial during the Olympics a few years ago I wanted to hate it…but then again, I also found myself wanting to drive the car.
The joke was this: we are so driven that even a trip to the moon got stale, and so we get bored. The advertisers were appealing to our vanity of course, but I also wonder if there wasn’t an appeal to something deeper: our fear of being bored, and the things we’ll do to fill that space.
I remember this commercial often each time we begin Lent. As we begin a season of stopping, of giving up things like desserts or Diet Coke or Facebook, it occurs to me that fasts we choose tell a lot about what consumes us these days. The little disciplines we take on tell something about our relationship to food, drink, vices, and of course, media.
If you’re looking for something to “stop,” many of us need look no further than the little media portals in our pockets or the larger compulsions that keep us hooked on them. Why do we fear putting them down for a time? If I had to guess, I’d say it was a fear of what Cadillac Man describes with dripping disdain: boredom. We are terrified of being bored.
If a Lenten fast involves any of our data-producing trinkets, will we be bored? And what will happen to us when we are?
The answer is, I’m sorry to say, yes. You are going to be bored for a time. You will have no darn idea what to do with yourself. You will feel unproductive and wasteful. But you’ll live.
Boredom may just be something we have to experience for a little while if we are to wake up and see (or simply remember) the difference between our real lives and our ego-fueled fantasies. We are headed into a season in which we have the opportunity to do exactly that.
Boredom is something we fear because it makes us feel less valuable and important, and can have the unconscious effect that whatever it is we’re doing, we’re doing it wrong. But if we’re choosing to fast from the hard-driving compulsions of our lives, then a dose of boredom may be an early sign that we’re actually doing it right.
The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens